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Almudena Grandes: El corazón helado (The Frozen Heart)

I sometimes wonder if there isn’t a Spanish law which requires every Spanish novelist to write at least once about the Spanish Civil War. This book is not entirely about the Civil War but all the major characters are influenced, directly or indirectly by it and some of them very much so, though the book is, for the most part, set in the present.

We follow the story of two extended families, related to one another. The main character and partial narrator from the first is Álvaro Carrión Otero. He teaches physics. The second is Raquel Fernández Perea. She is a banker. Álvaro’s family is/was primarily Francoist, though Álvaro himself is left-wing. Raquel’s family is/was primarily Republican. During the civil war, Raquel’s family fled to France and her grandfather, Ignacio, who claimed that he was nearly killed thirteen times, fought not only for the Republicans in Spain but for the French in World War II and was twice decorated. Raquel was born in France. The family only returned to Spain after the death of Franco though Ignacio was reluctant to do so ( we come from a country of hijos de puta, a country of cowards, cads, of grateful stomachs, a shitty country).

Julio, Álvaro’s father, had a more mixed civil war. His father, Benigno was quite old, when his first wife died. Teresa was twenty-one. Both her her parents died very quickly one after the other, leaving her destitute, so when Benigno proposed, she reluctantly accepted. They had two children Julio, being the eldest. Benigno was pro-Franco but Teresa was not. She started going to meetings of the Popular Front and even speaking at them. Benigno forbade her to do so but she took no notice of him. Julio started to despise his father for being so weak. When the civil war started, many of the men went off to fight so Teresa took over as primary school teacher, against the wishes of her husband. There was a flood of refugees (the village of Torrelodones where they lived was 29 kilometres from Madrid). Manuel was one of the refugees and they took him in. He was a teacher and a conjuror, teaching Julio many conjuring tricks. He was also younger and better-looking than Benigno.

Julio had admired his mother giving her speeches and also when she put down her husband regarding the outcome of the civil war. However, he lost his respect for her when he caught her in bed with Manuel. He attacked both of them. They left the next day. Julio never saw his mother again. He made a vow never to be on the losing side. He and his father went off to Madrid. We will gradually learn how Julio not only survived but became successful.

The book actually opens with Julio’s funeral. He died a very rich man leaving behind a widow, Angélica, and five children. Rafa was always coming up with business ideas, for which he borrowed money from his father, Julio Jr was a lawyer, Angélica Jr was a doctor, Clara a homemaker and Álvaro a physicist.

At the funeral Álvaro noticed a well-dressed woman who made an appearance, stood around for a while and then disappeared. Only one other person noticed her and nobody knew who she was. Soon after, his mother asks him to go to the bank where Julio apparently had some money. To his surprise, the banker (he was expecting a man) was the woman. She is the aforementioned Raquel Fernández Perea. The pair had met as children but he is not aware of this. We do find out that Raquel was Julio’s mistress, that Julio had left her an expensive flat and that the pair seem very much attracted to one another.

One other thing we learn is that when Álvaro is teaching physics to the first years, the key message is that 2+2 does not always equal 4. It does when everything is static but when either of the 2s move it does not. It is clear that this applies not only to physics but to your characters. We see it, for example with Julio Sr, as his children have differing view of him and this will apply to other characters. None of them suspected that Julio had a mistress and none of them know where his money came from, given his poor background.

A good part of the middle of the novel concerns the life and times of Julio Sr and of Ignacio, Raquel’s grandfather and, in particular, what happened to them in the civil war. Julio’s children and we know that he was in Russia with the German army, but the colourful and not always pleasant details are here explained in detail. Ignacio had a far less happy civil war, fighting for a losing cause, but was always brave and always decent and upright. He has to go into exile where life is not easy, as the French consider the Spanish refugees indésirables as they think that all the republicans killed priests and nuns and burned down churches. (This interestingly mirrors the current view of refugees coming in to Western Europe and the US, who are also looked down on.) They are all sent to camps but eventually get out but then the Germans take over and Ignacio is engaged in sabotage and then fighting in the French resistance, even capturing a German tank. As Grandes points out, 30,000 Spanish exiles fought for the French in World War II but they seem to have been forgotten.

Julio meanwhile is in Russia and Poland, before ending up in Riga. He continues to show a complete lack of moral scruples. He ends up in France where he pretends to the Spanish exiles that he was sympathetic to the Republican cause. However, he returns to Spain after the civil war and, completely unscrupulously, effectively steals some property. Grandes points out that many Republican sympathisers lost their property after the war by dubious but technically legal means. Julio goes on to make a fortune by clever property speculation. A new life for Julio Carrión, a life of drinking and whoring and private rooms, of calculations, percentages, profits, of dinners that went on into the early hours, more drinks, more whores, more private rooms, clandestine meetings. As we know he does get married but his wife,Angélica says to him You’re a thief, an impostor, a liar and a scoundrel with a taste for whores.

There is no doubt whom Grandes considers the most honourable of the two men, Julio and Ignacio. Álvaro later asks his father Why were you fighting for the bad guys, Papá?’ By chance Julio and Ignacio do meet in the war but they were and are clearly on opposite sides. They will also meet again under different circumstances, the meeting at which Álvaro and Raquel met, a meeting which made far more impression on Raquel than on Álvaro.

Álvaro is keen on finding more about his father but he is also keen on finding more about his grandmother, Teresa (Julio’s mother) about whom, it seems, he and his siblings have been told lies by his father. He is also keen on having an affair with Raquel, his father’s former mistress. The complicated affair – he claims to love both his wife and Raquel – becomes decidedly murky.

The affair drags on and we soon learn that it is far more complicated than we thought and the affair as well as the dirt Álvaro finds out about their father and reveals to his siblings cause considerable rupture within the family.

Grandes is clearly aiming to show here that while even Spaniards might be well aware of some of the horrors of their civil war, other awful things happened of which many Spaniards are unaware, specifically the terrible treatment the Spanish exiles received in French camps (one prisoner says the camps were worse than the Nazi ones) and how many Republicans were cheated out of their property, often technically legally and, because they were on the losing side, they had no recourse. Clearly the scars of that war still have not healed.

This is a superb novel as it goes into considerable detail into the whys and wherefores of both those who fought and lost and those who fought and won in the civil war. Álvaro himself, while still claiming to love his father, called him a liar, a swindler, a traitor, a thief, a conman, an opportunist, a man devoid of morals, emotions or scruples, an evil man. Clearly, many Francoists took full advantage of being the winners and grabbed what they could at the expense of the losers.

The title comes from Proverbios y Cantares no. 53 of Spanish poet Antonio Machado, which reads as follows in translation:

Now there is a Spaniard about
to be born, and he begins to live
between a Spain that is dying
and another Spain that yawns.
God help you, young Spaniard,
as you enter this world.
One of these two Spains
is bound to freeze your heart

First published in Spanish 2007 by Tusquets
First English translation in 2007 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Translated by Frank Wynne